Carolina Panthers

Top spot out of reach

Carolina's DeAngelo Williams breaks loose for one of his four touchdowns Sunday in the Panthers' 34-28 overtime loss to the Giants.
Carolina's DeAngelo Williams breaks loose for one of his four touchdowns Sunday in the Panthers' 34-28 overtime loss to the Giants.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- You knew somebody was going to win it running.

You just didn't know until near midnight who it would be.

Sparked by three big runs from Derrick Ward in overtime, the New York Giants claimed the top seed in the NFC with a 34-28 win over Carolina on Sunday night.

Ward's bursts, for 51, 14 and 17 yards, were the last in a series of big plays by the Giants ground game that helped them clinch home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. The killer came on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Brandon Jacobs, his third score of the night, but the Panthers lost this one in stages.

They led by 11 in the first half, but were unable to stop the Giants' league-leading ground game when it mattered. New York ran for 301 yards, with Ward getting 215 of those.

With the loss, the Panthers still need to win next week at New Orleans to guarantee themselves a home game in the playoffs. If they lose to the Saints and Atlanta wins at home against St. Louis, the Falcons would take the NFC South title and the second seed.

That would leave the Panthers, who already clinched a playoff spot, on the road in the first round, heading to Arizona for a Wild Card game.

This one stung the Panthers, who had won three straight, and seemed to have many of the same ingredients on hand for another victory. Now, they go into the final week unsure of where they'll be, other than simply somewhere in the tournament.

"We're in the playoffs," Panthers coach John Fox said. "That was our goal heading into the season. The team that won last year wasn't a No. 1 seed ...

"It just wasn't meant to be."

The Panthers had a chance to win it in the last seconds of regulation, but John Kasay's 50-yard field goal floated just left with four seconds remaining, after he appeared to have misstepped on his approach. The wind swirled throughout the stadium all night, making his attempt on the far fringe of what he was hitting in pre-game warmups.

Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams finished with 108 yards and four touchdowns (three in the first half), but it wasn't enough, particularly in the second half.

The two sides looked like they were going to stay in a previous era, hammering at each other consistently with the run.

Williams put the Panthers up 7-3 with his 13-yard, up-the-middle untouched score in the first quarter.

Jacobs answered by bulling the Giants downfield, and plowing in from 2 yards out to give New York a 10-7 lead.

Williams' next one was from 5 yards out, plowing in behind left guard Travelle Wharton.

That one was set up despite a pair of plays that nearly went the Giants' way.

First, the Panthers got a 60-yard pass to Muhsin Muhammad, which went through the hands of Giants corner Aaron Ross as he was falling backward. Then, replay overruled what would have been a Steve Smith touchdown, but that allowed Williams to score his third of the night from the 1.

That gave the Panthers a 21-10 lead with 4:45 left in the first half.

And while they were keeping a torrid early pace with the ball, they came up with the few defensive stops of the first half.

Carolina limited the Giants to a field goal on the game-opening drive, and came up with several decisive stops over the course of the first half.

Defensive tackle Darwin Walker nailed fullback Madison Hedgecock for no gain on a third and 1, and the Panthers applied pressure on the next series. A blitzing sack by Thomas Davis was followed by Ken Lucas dropping Ward for a third-down loss the next time out.

The Panthers could have made the margin wider, but dropped potential interceptions (by Charles Godfrey and Jon Beason) on the following drive forced the Giants into another field goal, making it 21-13 at halftime.

The offenses went quiet -- or at least quieter -- in the third quarter. The Panthers weren't able to muster much, and the Giants cut the gap to 21-20 with 59 seconds left in the quarter when Kevin Boss' 4-yard touchdown capped a 12-play, 84-yard drive.

Williams was far from finished, scoring his fourth of the night from 30 yards out, breaking a tackle from safety James Butler and dashing the rest of the way. That gave the Panthers a 28-20 lead with 12:50 remaining.

Defensive end Julius Peppers bought Carolina three points on the following possession, with his third-down sack driving the Giants out of field goal range.

It gave him 13 1/2 sacks on the year, a new career high.

That forced the Giants to punt, but they downed the Panthers at their own 1, and Carolina was unable to move the ball. The Panthers' punt left the Giants working on a short field, and they closed the gap to 28-26 after Jacobs' 1-yard touchdown with 3:21 left.

That was set up by a pass interference call on Lucas (the first penalty on the Panthers all night), and the Giants attacked him again on the two-point conversion, with Domenik Hixon ducking inside him for the game-tying conversion.

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